Exert from "The Therapeutic Relationship in Elite Sport" in Massage and Myotherapy Australia, the journal for Australian Massage Therapists. By Gayelene Clews (Psychologist) with Peter Wybenga (Massage Therapist), March 2017.

The art of a good therapist is knowing the right questions to ask. It is not the role of the massage therapist to provide elite athletes with prescriptive advice especially if it is outside their area of expertise, but they can invite self-reflection and self-awareness.  Prescriptive massage is also of limited benefit to the athlete, because it can fail to meet the therapeutic needs of the individual.  A good massage therapist is intuitive and by definition this means “to be in tune with”.

Intuitive massage requires the therapist to build trusting relationships and be emotionally present and connected to the client throughout the massage.  Intuitive therapists read subtle emotional and physical cues and adjust the treatment in response to those cues to better meet the needs of the athlete at the time of treatment.  The same can be said of psychologists.  Athletes are often highly intuitive and expect their therapists to be likewise.  A prescriptive number of body strokes in standardized massage may fail to target an area of tightness and more importantly, may miss the area of origin where the tightness is emanating from.  Massage is about unwinding tight muscles and fascia and understanding why they have occurred in the first instance.

Intuition is not some “magical” concept, rather it comes from years of mindful and deliberate practice.  At any given point in time the brain sub-consciously processes millions of pieces of information, but consciously can only handle 40 -150 pieces (depending on the research) before it becomes overloaded.  Human beings, however, have an amazing capacity for pattern recognition. Successful athletes have the capacity to take ostensibly random pieces of information and chunk them into meaningful inspiring performances.     

Take the seemingly instinctive football player who develops his intuition through years and years of deliberate practice.  He has become intimately familiar with his environment by intentionally immersing himself in his chosen sport in order to become a master of it.  This deliberate practice builds a mental library based on experience and expertise that is chunked into subcategories, enabling him to see, interpret and process tiny bits of detail into a predictable action, much of which is done on a sub conscious level.

The intuitive football player sees how certain pieces of information relate to others.  They pick up information such as eye gaze, the tilt of a head, body tension, small movements in facial expression, tone of voice and chunk this information to predict where a team mate or opposition player is about to place the ball and they act.  What seems instinctive is a learnt ability.  In spending exorbitant periods of time immersed in practicing, training and competing, the footballer is able to take a series of theoretically independent episodes and create a dense web of patterns that he now observes.  To the spectator it appears to be instinctual, but to the player it is a learnt ability to read the game based on years and years of mindful and deliberate practice.  An intuitive therapist does the same. 

By being fully present during the massage and remaining connected to the athlete on both a physical and emotional level, the therapist is able to read the athlete’s body. They bring years of nurture, experience and familiarity with the human form into their treatment.  Having acquired “a feel” for the body and by resonating with the individual, they intuitively know what type of treatment is required and the areas to work on. 

Massage therapists don’t just smooth out knots in tired muscles, they also smooth out frayed nerves. Tightness trapped in the physical body may be directly connected to the emotional state of the athlete.  In the hands of the therapist the unwinding of knots in the muscles may also lead to the unwinding of emotions.  While massage can at times be painful it is different from injury pain.  Rather, it can stimulate the release of opioids and provide the athlete with some relief from their physical and emotional symptoms, leaving them feeling physically and emotionally lighter.  The soothing benefits of massage increase the likelihood the athlete will be able to fulfil their athletic potential.   The default button of many elite athletes is to work harder when faced with challenge, whilst the therapist knows that training smarter is often what is required.